Wow. Few authors can blow me away like Bacigalupi can. After I finished this book, I had to just sort of sit there catching my breath (I felt the same way after finishing Ship Breaker). Bacigalupi can *go there* like no other YA author I've read.
This book is brutal and no punches are pulled, but not in a gratuitous way. The violence is real and believable and absolutely necessary to the story. Actually, it IS the story.
This is a companion novel to Ship Breaker: America is no longer, and the east-central region is rife with civil war. There are several factions fighting for control, each calling themselves true patriots, but are really just warlords seeking power. Everything about it reminds me of certain areas of Africa, which made it real and extremely uncomfortable, and yet I couldn't stop reading.
Mahlia and Mouse have grown up in the Drowned Cities, which is the Washington D.C. area. They knew a short time of Peace when China intervenes in an attempt to end the fighting (and this reminds me of the Middle East). In the end, though, China pulls out and the fighting resumes as though it had never stopped. Ten years isn't long enough to erase animosity and hatred, real or imagined. Any semblance of peace is shattered, and soldiers go where they please, take whatever they want in the name of patriotism, and leave a path of destruction behind them. Mahlia and Mouse learned how to stay out of the soldiers' paths, but then Tool enters their lives.
Tool is the only character from Ship Breaker--half man, half animal hybrid of dog, hyena, tiger, and a few other predators. He was built with one purpose in mind, to fight in a war. Mahlia and Tool find an unlikely alliance, and the story delves into themes of loyalty, friendship, family, and being forced into all of the above--like kidnapped children in Africa being forced to fight in a warlord's army. This is explored in full detail, along with the horrors of war, and my heart broke for Mahlia and Mouse.
At the same time, I cheered for Tool. In Ship Breaker, he discovers himself as an individual, which goes against his breeding and genetic engineering. In Drowned Cities, Tool discovers that he can have a purpose. He has an amazing revelation: "I have never been defeated, but have I ever won anything?" That really illustrates the difference between avoiding what you don't want and going after what you do want. Tool is such a fantastic character, and I can't wait to see what he'll do next. I am wondering if absolute power will corrupt absolutely.
If violence or war isn't your thing, then you won't enjoy Drowned Cities. But if you like stories with vast amounts of depth and emotion, then it's definitely for you. Definitely recommended. To get the full effect of Tool as a character, you should read Ship Breaker first. However, this book can be read on its own.
Age appropriateness: the realities of war are up front and center in this book, so it might be too much for younger teens.